May 242016
 
Cell phones in use

“We’re in the flip phone era of 5G networks, people don’t realise today’s 4G mobile standards were written for the era of the flip phone,” says John Smee, the Senior Director of Engineering at Qualcomm Research

John was speaking to me at chipset manufacturer Qualcomm’s San Diego head office to discuss the next generation of mobile phone services.

Putting together communications standards isn’t a simple thing, as John says “what we’re discussing now is what today’s five year olds will be using when they turn fifteen.”

John sees the new standard as giving the next generation of internet giants their market opening, pointing out companies such as Facebook and Uber benefitted from the rollout of 4G networks and some of today’s startups will get a similar boost from 5G services. “A few clicks and you’ve ordered a ride. That wouldn’t have been possible without 3G connectivity, high powered smartphones and networks that are scalable.”

“What are going to be some interesting new startups that become huge multibillion dollar industries from 2030,” he asks. “By definition we don’t understand the future.”

For telco executives being a ‘dumb pipe’ is one of their nightmares and John believes they can avoid that fate in a 5G world by concentrating on their advantages with licensed spectrum. “If they are looking a high reliability and low latency services then the quality of the connectivity they can offer becomes essential,” he says.

While the standards groups continue to work on the 5G standards, the technologies continue to evolve. John Smee’s message is that these new products are going to offer opportunities for new companies.

The trick is to figure out which of today’s startup companies will be the Uber or Facebook of 2025.

May 232016
 
Amazon echo

The winner of the upcoming fight over voice technologies will come down to who is the most open and provides the best utility believes Tad Toulis, VP for design at smart speaker manufacturer Sonos.

A struggle is looming between the different voice systems believes Tad Toulis, VP of Design at smart speaker manufacturer Sonos.

We were speaking at Sonos’ Santa Barbara office the day after Google launched its Google Home voice activated hub to compete with Amazon’s and Apple’s Siri systems.

“There’s a little bit of syntax difference with every device we use, so we’re about to re-enter this environment where we have competing formats.” states Toulis, hinting at the days of competing network types operating systems and file types.

For Sonos, that fight between formats is an opportunity believes Toulis. “Sonos was very early into this space, so much so that it’s had a few lives. The original proposition was a way to get people who were into music to have access to their digital music and enliven their home with that music.”

“At a certain point in that arc, that category started to shrink a little bit and streaming started to emerge. Now streaming has become mainstream and we’re facing another cycle.”

Generous systems

Voice though is a social thing and that changes how we interact with devices Toulis believes, “we want to talk out loud in generous way to a generous system.”

“What people want is a supportive, powerful experience that creates good options day to day,” says Toulis. “The technology is fast approaching a tipping point where it’s very human centric.”

“The promise is to figure who can do that in the most natural way so you’re not thinking about the syntax and more about the experience.”

Finding a place at the table

Like most smaller players in the marketplace, Toulis sees Sonos as being a nuetral intermediary between with the various technology empires.

“Sonos offers a place in that conversation. We also approach it in a different way because it’s not one of our businesses, it is our business.”

“I assume we’ll do what we’ve done with the music services. We’ve always believed that we do well when there are many players.”

Winning the voice wars

When asked who is likely to win the voice wars, Toulis is quite rightly guarded, “what I’ve seen over my career in technology is what wins is what works for people, it’s not always the best technologies that win. What wins is the technology value proposition, here’s a need that hasn’t been satisfied and here’s a way of doing it that is sticky.”

“The one that creates the solution with the least resistance will win,” says Toulis. “The best solutions are usually pretty obvious. The problem is you have a bunch of specialists looking at it, they can’t see how obvious it is because they are looking past the target. They’re either very close up.”

While Toulis’ view is attractive, the risk for companies like Sonos is the technology empires find their business models aren’t suited to being open or generous and controlling access to their services is more compelling for their managers and shareholders.

Hopefully open web and data will prove to be the market’s driving forces and certainly Ted Toulis’ and Sonos’ views are what users would prefer, the giants though may not prove to be so generous.

May 212016
 
Sonos_Play_5

Today I had the opportunity to tour the Santa Barbara headquarters of smart speaker manufacturer Sonos. I’ll be writing up a some more detailed accounts of some of the interesting things this fascinating company does.

One thing particularly interesting thing about Sonos is how it was established by four veterans of the original dot com era who had no experience in audio hardware or technology but had a vision of how they would like the stereo system of the future to look like.

That vision hasn’t come without change for the company, the shift to streaming has meant Sonos itself has had to pivot away from its original business model which entailed layoffs for the fast growing company last year.

How Sonos is navigating that shift, along with fostering a culture of openness and innovation is an interesting story that I’ll be telling over the next few weeks. In the meantime, my head is spinning from information overload.

May 172016
 
business return on assets is falling away

Equity crowdsourcing comes late to the Silicon Valley party but could it help the capital starved small business sector?

As of today, equity crowdfunding is now legal in the United States.

The interesting thing is it appears Silicon Valley is shifting away from the VC model that this initiative was intended to promote among smaller investors.

Whether equity crowdfunding can be applied to ventures outside the tech startup industry remains to be seen, it may be in a world where banks have stepped away from their traditional role of providing capital to business that this is the way for proprietors to raise essential funds.

May 052016
 
intel-smart-bike-helmet

As video technology accelerates, the push for augmented and virtual reality applications accelerates. Of the two different technologies, it looks like augmented reality is beginning to get traction in the marketplace.

One example of an augmented reality application is Skulley Systems, a motorbike helmet with a head up display similar to those in fighter jets.

The idea was the result of the company’s founder having a motorbike accident in Barcelona as he was reading a street sign. Dr Marcus Weller wanted to buy a bike helmet that displayed driving information and found there was nothing on the market.

Dr Weller is not alone in his idea of augmented reality devices, Sony have reportedly patented a contact lens that will record the details of your life and play it back to you. It’s just one of many different augmented reality ideas that inventors are proposing although Sony’s appears to be more of defensive patent ploy rather than a real product.

Skulley though doesn’t have the smart motorbike market to itself, last year Intel demonstrated their own motor bike helmet that integrates with the bike’s internal management systems.

The main difference between Sony’s patent and Skulley Systems is the motorcycle helmet is close to reality having been through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, then seed and venture capital investment.

What Skulley are showing is the augmented reality applications are close to fruition, partly because ideas like visor displays are clear solutions for today’s problems. We are though only at the beginning of the roll out of both artificial and virtual reality technologies.

May 012016
 
google-larry-page-sergei-brin-driverless-car

Breaking with the company’s tradition of the Sergi, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai writes this year’s founders letter laying out how the search engine giant is focusing of artificial intelligence and the machine learning.

Pichai’s view of the world seems to tie in very closely with founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin with him laying out a vision of making the internet and computers accessible to all.

The challenge for Google is the shift away from personal computers, something that the company is struggling with and a factor that Pichai acknowledges.

Today’s proliferation of “screens” goes well beyond phones, desktops, and tablets. Already, there are exciting developments as screens extend to your car, like Android Auto, or your wrist, like Android Wear. Virtual reality is also showing incredible promise—Google Cardboard has introduced more than 5 million people to the incredible, immersive and educational possibilities of VR.

Whether Google can execute on that vision and manages to diversify its revenues away from depending almost exclusively upon web advertising will be what defines Pichai’s time as the company’s CEO. He has a challenging task ahead.

Apr 202016
 
the taxi industry is being disrupted by mobile apps

“It has to be disruptive technology,” bleated the consulting firm facilitator at the Future Transport Summit in Sydney earlier this week.

The hapless, but well paid, consultant — a depressingly frequent feature of Australia’s current ‘ideas boom’ — was protesting when one of the participants at his ‘ideation session’ had raised topics such as integrated timetables and changing commuting habits.

Mr Consultant’s running orders for his ‘ideation session’ were to focus on ‘digital disruption’ and his employer;s cluelessness illustrates a danger for business leaders and policy makers.

Selling the snake oil

Digital disruption is real however it’s not just the only factor facing governments and industries. Demographics, economics, politics and climate change will have greater influences on business and society.

Uber, the favourite lovechild of those spruiking digital disruption snake oil, is a very good case in point. While the service certainly has disrupted the taxi and motor vehicle industries, these sectors were facing major challenges as governments enacted policies to reduce carbon emissions, voters became tired of cartel like taxi companies and the Western world’s young and wealthy moved back to the cities and away from owning motor vehicles.

If anything, Uber was the result of GenY entrepreneurs like Travis Kalanick finding existing services didn’t meet their needs rather than the result of technology desperately looking for a problem to solve finding a niche.

Complex changes

While the smartphone was critical in Uber’s success in disrupting the global taxi industry, technology was only one facet of a much more complex set of changes.

The motor industry is a good example of the complexity of change. A hundred years ago it was clear the transport industry was about to be disrupted by the automobile, it was by no means obvious access to affordable personal transport would allow urban sprawl and the suburbanisation of western society.

Coupled with the motor car and truck, the availabilty of mains electricity meant refrigeration also became accessible which lead to the rise of supermarkets after World War II. This disrupted the local corner store in ways shopkeepers could never have foreseen in the interwar years.

Shifting demographics

Now, the opposite is happening as the young and affluent reject long commuting times from distant suburbs and city densities start increasing.

The social and economic factors that drove Uber are affecting public transport usage patterns and it’s no coincidence that the cities where ride sharing services have most successful, such as Sydney, also have underfunded public transport systems that are struggling to meet their population’s demands.

Which brings us back to the foolishness of discussing the future of transport only in relation to technology. Smartphones, apps, big data and the internet of things will all be critical parts of future transportation but the social and economic factors will shape how people use the networks.

Focusing on technology while ignoring the other big influences is a folly that will cost businesses and government dearly. Although one suspects the management consultancies will do well regardless of how well change is managed.